Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Bean back to Watford locks

When you live on a boat you get used to fielding a few basic questions. Some of these are as simple as "can you stand up in there?" (a genuine question) but one of the more practical ones is "how do you do your food shopping?". Conveniently, some supermarkets (especially Tesco on the Grand Union) are canal-side so sometimes it's dead easy - like on the way out of Aylesbury.

The next blog will explain that no, you don't empty the toilet into the canal......

Rejoining the Grand Union mainline at Bulbourne Junction, we turned left and headed northwards. From Pitstone we shared locks with nb Daisy Chain, enjoying views of the Dunstable Downs as the weather gradually cleared up.

We stopped on the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard and indulged Victoria's obsession with the film Buster (don't ask) by cycling to Bridego Bridge - better known as the scene of the Great Train Robbery.

The next day we moved on through Leighton Buzzard (home to another canal-side Tesco) and onwards through a really pretty stretch of the Grand Union, following the River Ouzel.

We waited at the top of Soulbury three locks for a boat coming up, then took our turn heading down. This can be a really busy spot with a pub right by the locks so plenty of onlookers if you make a mess of the locks. Fortunately it was quiet for us and we had a smooth run down the locks.

From there, we had just one lock on the way into Milton Keynes. Being a 'new town', Milton Keynes was built around the canal but makes good use of it as a greenway and the cruise through MK is much nicer than you might expect. We had been recommended some good moorings by Geoff from nb Bottom of Arden and agree with his choice of Great Linford as a good stopping point - thanks Geoff!

We got the bikes out and explored MK using the excellent cycle tracks which go all over the town - definitely the best way to get around here.

After a brief shopping stop in Wolverton (possibly not a great place to moor overnight) we crossed the Cosgrove Iron Trunk aqueduct which carries the canal...

...over the river Great Ouse

If you explore underneath the aqueduct you can see the line of the old locks which used to drop the canal down to the level of the river, which it crossed on the level (when the river wasn't in flood at least) before climbing back up the other side. Looking at the height you'd have to lose and then regain, I'm glad they built the aqueduct!

We moored in Cosgrove just in time for a quick visit from our friends Mike & Aileen from nb Quaintrelle who we met on the K&A last year. They were passing the area by car but we hope to meet up again later in the year.

We left Cosgrove the next day behind a little day-hire boat, leaving the village under the beautiful Soloman's bridge.

Shortly before the Stoke Bruerne locks the day boat pulled over to let us past and as we carried on we heard a lot of comotion behind - it turned out one of the men on the day boat had fallen in. The table full of beers as we passed may have had something to do with it...

We had a decent run up the Stoke Bruerne flight, assisted by some great volunteers.

The boat we were sharing with stopped part way up so we had no problem doing as the volunteer lock keepers asked and waited in the top lock for another boat to catch us up.

This displeased somebody waiting to come down, even though it is generally accepted that sharing locks is a good idea to save water. Never mind, you can't please everybody and when you're boating, what's the rush?

We had a great curry at Spice of Bruerne that night before carrying on northwards through Blisworth Tunnel the next morning. This tunnel has plenty of headroom so Middlewich Duck was allowed to stay on the roof to see where we were going.

After a brief stop at Gayton Junction to empty the toilet (no, not into the canal)

we carried on towards Weedon, passing model-village scenery where the train and canal run close together.

Strangely Weedon was about the only busy place on this part of the GU but we moored just outside the village and had a ride to a local garden centre to replace our rather poorly-looking herbs.

The next day we climbed the Buckby flight of locks, sharing with a stag party who, to put it nicely, were glad we knew how to work a lock.... They apparently had been given virtually no instruction by the hire company, having to crowd around a tiny TV for a 20 minute DVD crash course on everything to do with boating! They were then let loose in 20 tons of carnage-in-the-making! They were a nice bunch of lads and mostly reasonably sober and we made it to the top with no problems.

Conveniently, the stag made it out of bed just as we left the last lock (apparently suffering from sea-sickness) and we said goodbye to them as they headed for Braunston.  We turned right at Norton Junction and stopped for the night just onto the Leicester Line of the GU.

The next day we arrived at Watford locks (just behind Watford Gap services if you're ever stuck in traffic on the M1 and fancy a break!) and took our place in a queue of boats heading up.

We haven't been this way on Pas Meche before but we did go to Market Harborough and back on a hire boat six years ago, which is when we came up with the ridiculous idea of living on a narrowboat. Our nieces came with us for part of that trip and we were reminiscing about Rosa having a mood as we went up Watford locks. She's much older and (probably) less stroppy now but back then she flicked baked beans at Dave in anger and it has never been forgotten. Rosa, this photo is for you:

Although we were working then so I think they were Heinz, even worse! 

Back to boating - Watford is a bit of a bottleneck but once you're in the main staircase of four locks it's a quick and easy climb to the top. The flight uses side ponds so as long as you get the paddles in the right order it's a doddle. White then red you'll be dead, red then white you'll be alright.

After a night stop in Crick we carried on the next day and detoured down the Welford Arm, which is only about a mile and a half long with one small but pretty lock.

There's plenty of mooring at the end of the Arm but the winding hole is pretty tight, especially when there's a boat moored in it! We think it had just come out of the dry dock but I doubt a 70' boat would've made it round as we only had a couple of feet to spare.

Today we've come back to Welford Junction and carried on up to Foxton. We had a bit of a hold up before Husbands Bosworth tunnel as there was a tree down across the canal. After a hire boat in front of us had pruned it a bit (partly with their boat hook and partly with their prop by the sound of things as they came through the obstruction!) we made it through the narrow gap.

We're moored tonight at the top of the Foxton flight - 10 locks arranged in two staircases of five. There used to be an inclined plane here too and we've spent an hour or so looking round the remains of it.

We also went to the museum which has a good exhibition about the boat lift but had to make our excuses when this crazy boat woman offered us tea.

Tomorrow we'll go down the locks and head to Market Harborough, before turning back to continue northwards as we're due to meet Dave's parents on nb Leo in the next few days.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

All the way to Aylesbury

To blog readers of a nervous disposition, apologies for keeping you in suspense over whether or not we survived the tidal Thames ... in short, we did.

First, we had to get back to London after our trip up the rivers Lee and Stort. We were joined from Cheshunt by Victoria's mum & dad who came with us down to Enfield.

From there it was an easy day back to Limehouse Basin, passing the Olympic park in Stratford.

At Limehouse we were pleased to see two other narrowboats who were also booked to go out on the tideway the following day, so at least we wouldn't be on our own.

We spent the afternoon preparing for the big trip the following day - anchor readied, VHF radio checked, lifejackets out and plenty of tea on standby! Then we retired to the pub for some Dutch courage.

The following morning came and conditions couldn't have been better - still, sunny weather and a very quiet river Thames waiting the far side of Limehouse lock. We entered the lock bang on 7am and were soon lowered down to the Thames below. We bravely let the other two narrowboats out first to lead the way.

The Thames outside the lock wasn't exactly like a mill-pond but there were no waves and rolling washes like we'd experienced last time we did this, in 2012. Great view of Canary Wharf from the river in the photo below, although you can see Victoria is holding on with both hands as there was some swell on the river despite the calm conditions.

Note to boaters, we'd aimed for a day when the tide was early in the morning so there were fewer trip boats or high speed RIB's around and this definitely paid off - a narrowboat needs all the help it can get on the tideway!

The tide carried us away from Limehouse and we soon came to Tower Bridge, which marks the first of the major London landmarks.

After this they come thick and fast but, unlike 2012, we were relaxed enough this time to take it in and enjoy the experience!

Around Vauxhall Bridge the river calms down as there are much fewer trip boats in this area. What there are, however, is huge tugs towing barges of containers. We met one of these approaching Vauxhall Bridge and had to make a last minute change of course as the tugs have priority over the navigation channel of the river. When one of these things is heading for you, you get out of the way!

There are building works near Battersea power station at the moment and plenty of tugs were coming in and out from the wharf there and turning in the river. We had the strange experience of moving too fast in a narrowboat when one turned in front of us and we found ourselves bearing down on it with the tide carrying us faster than we would've liked.

Drama over, we carried on through some of the posher bits of London and soon saw the statue at Brentford which marks the entrance to the Grand Union canal.

We caught the lock keeper at Thames Lock napping but were soon up and on our way into the basin at Brentford.

As it was still early we got the bikes out and had a ride along the Thames path to Richmond, before a cheeky pint at the Sam Smith's pub in Isleworth, by which time the tide was well on its way out.

The following day we repeated the bottom end of the Grand Union, which we had done before going into London, so up the Hanwell locks and across the aqueduct at Three Bridges, where the road crosses over the canal right above where the canal crosses the railway. The picture below is taken from the road bridge.

We reached Bull's Bridge, where the Paddington Arm goes off into central London, and were very happy to be carrying on northwards away from the city.

After so long in built up areas we were really looking forward to getting out into green again. Maybe that's why we resisted the 5 virtually dead straight, lock-free miles of the Slough Arm and carried on northwards.

From Harefield we shared locks with nb Bottom of Arden who was single handed (landlubber translation: a boating term meaning one person on their own, nothing to do with disabilities...) but very slick.

We made good progress up to Cassiobury Park near Watford, which is a lot nicer than it sounds. There is a whole mixture of boats at this end of the Grand Union - narrowboats, cruisers, dutch barges and even one boat/car crossbreed.

Just before Apsley we caught up with nb Bottom of Arden again and agreed to share locks the following day heading for Berkhamsted. On the way we met these two Dutch guys on their little tugs - they are apparently heading for Birmingham, then back down to Oxford before following the Thames all the way back into central London. And we felt small on the tideway..........!

We made it to Berkhamsted but it was so busy with boats we ended up doing a much longer day than any of us had in mind. By this point, the Grand Union is rapidly climbing up to the summit in the Chilterns so the locks come thick and fast.

We continued on our own the next day, climbing up the final few locks to the summit at Cowroast - a really scenic part of the GU.

We have been meaning to do some painting for a while now so crossing the three mile summit pound we were looking for the ideal spot. We found it at Bulbourne, where there was a low bank and a winding hole (so we could turn the boat to get to both sides) and, most importantly, a pub. A whole week of jobs ensued as we painted from the gunnels down on both sides, and oiled all the wood inside.

Inevitably this involves making things worse before you make them better so Pas Meche turned scruffy and spotty first.

Meanwhile, inside things got even more drastic, with a new and controversial idea in interior design - the "corridor toilet" which was invented whilst the wood in the bathroom was being oiled.

After a week of hard work Pas Meche was gleaming again and we set off down the Marsworth locks, inevitably putting the first marks into the fresh paint in the process! Victoria refused to steer on the first day with fresh paint. At Marsworth junction we turned left to detour down the Aylesbury arm. This is a narrow canal and starts with a staircase lock (two together, where the bottom gate of one is the top gate of the next with no pound in between). We like narrow canals and at least it gives the new paint a few days to harden without sharing locks with other boats.

We've made it to Aylesbury today and have really enjoyed this little detour. The canal is remote and pretty all the way to Aylesbury. The unusual thing about it is that the water tends to pour over top and bottom gates of the locks as there are no bywashes. This means you could get wet feet as you go down the locks:

Whilst the bottom gates end up with a waterfall over them as the boat comes in:

After rural calm all the way along the arm, Aylesbury basin turns out to be undergoing some major redevelopment at the moment so is not the nicest mooring in the world right now. Still, there is plenty of room and it's a good spot to explore the town from.